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Blog/Opinion: What's lurking in your cabinet?

How did one substance used as embalming fluid (formaldehyde) and another one that replicates something in our urine (urea) end up in our cabinets?


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First, let's talk about the cabinets themselves. Unless your house is really old or you're really wealthy, your cabinets are likely made of particleboard, plywood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard). Particleboard is a composite material made of wood scraps like chips, shavings or sawdust, bound together with resins made of—you guessed it—formaldehyde, urea and other chemicals that make the woodlike substances stronger and more resistant to fire and water.

Particleboard does have eco-origins: It was developed during World War II as a way to salvage waste materials from factories and, during the 1950s, was incorporated into home design and perceived as an upgrade from solid wood.

Today, particleboard—and its stronger siblings, plywood and MDF—are the most ubiquitous of products because they're cheap and lightweight. Plywood is composed of thin layers of wood glued together at right angles. MDF is denser than particleboard and has the added potential to be greener (when made of rapidly renewable fibers such as bamboo) and cleaner (when bound with nontoxic, water-based resins). Both materials are used in place of plain wood to reduce warping, shrinking and variance.

Because the wood in my old kitchen is so uneven and wonky, I may be swapping out my cabinets for eco-MDF. I will give you the details if they, indeed, become my cabinetry of choice. I know there are benefits to this, but I also think of these manufactured products as homogenized trees, stripped of their quirky characters and lifelike qualities. They are definitely easier to work with, yet something wonderful gets lost when you reconstitute wood—and, in the case of conventional manufactured wood products, douse them in toxic chemicals.

Formaldehyde is commonly blended with urea to create permanent adhesives for wood products. It's also classified as a known human carcinogen. Exposure primarily occurs through inhalation, which wouldn't be such a big problem if testing hadn't shown manufactured wood products continue to off-gas urea formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds over time.

In short: If it's in the product, it's in your house. The best way to avoid these VOCs is to check and see if your products contain them. Big chains such as IKEA have responded to consumer concerns and are working to reduce the amounts of VOC in their furniture. Consumer pressure may encourage others to follow suit.

These kinds of chemicals are unavoidable. Formaldehyde [in small amounts] is in facial tissues, insulation and all sorts of textiles. Urea is used in fertilizers, plastics, dish soap and teeth-whitening products. Both are found in cigarettes. But now that we know they are there, we can work to reduce exposure where it makes sense. Cabinets might be one such place.



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What's lurking in your cabinet?:  Created on March 18th, 2010.  Last Modified on April 11th, 2010

About Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi is the founding host/writer of Sundance Channel's environmental programming The Green and the creator of the Sundance Web series The Good Fight, highlighting global environmental justice efforts and grassroots activism. She is also an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is currently writing a book on psychological barriers to environmental engagement. Simran is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book.

Named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as the “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Simran has contributed numerous segments to Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNBC, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Martha Stewart Show and History Channel. She is committed to a redefinition of environmentalism that includes voices from the prairie, the inner city and the global community.

Simran blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet and is currently writing a year-long series about making her first home more resource efficient for Oprah Winfrey’s Web site She has been a featured guest on NPR and is the host of the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, “A School in the Woods.” She has lectured at institutions ranging from the Commonwealth Club to Cornell University; keynoted conferences including Bioneers by the Bay, the Green Business Conference and the North American Association For Environmental Education; and moderated panels for the Clinton Global Initiative University, Demos and the Climate Group.

Simran is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.  She holds an M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Presidio Graduate School and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College.  She is the 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal, awarded to alumnae demonstrating extraordinary professional achievements and outstanding service to their communities and the 2009 recipient of the University of Kansas award for Leadership in Sustainability.


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